It was Jan. 2, 1961 — four months before the burning of a bus carrying Freedom Riders — when 23-year-old Arthur Bacon was beaten by five men while waiting on a ride at the Southern Railways Station in Anniston.
“They beat me until someone stopped them,” he said via phone Thursday.
Now a Talladega College emeritus professor, Bacon has lived in the area for more than half a century, but few know his role in Anniston’s civil rights movement.
That could change this week. The train station where Bacon was attacked is the first stop on Anniston’s new Civil Rights Trail, set for unveiling Friday at 11 a.m. at Seventeenth Street Baptist Church, 801 W. 17th St. Organizers say the trail will meet a demand for sites dedicated to Anniston’s role in the civil rights movement.
“When tourists come in, they don’t come to see Wal-Mart. They come to see history,” said Georgia Calhoun, chairwoman of the trail committee.
Calhoun said this is the first civil rights trail for the city, and she’s been thinking about constructing a trail for a long time.
“It’s history, and a history that has been told,” she said. “Our young people don’t know about it. It’s been my aim for 10 years to get this done.”
Calhoun has done a wonderful job of developing the idea of the trail, Bacon said. He still remembers that day on Jan. 2, 1961, when he walked into the Southern Railways train station and sat down in a whites-only waiting room. The train station now serves as Amtrak’s Anniston station and the hub of the ACT bus transit system. Bacon, then a Talladega College senior, had just arrived from his hometown of West Palm Beach, Fla., where he spent his Christmas holidays. He was waiting on a ride back to school.
Bacon had heard of the Supreme Court’s decision in Boynton v. Virginia, a case that made it clear interstate transit facilities couldn’t be segregated. Months later, activists known as Freedom Riders would ride through the South on interstate buses to put that decision to the test; a mob attacked and burned one such bus outside Anniston.
Bacon had simply read the Supreme Court decision and assumed he was free to sit in a white waiting room.
“I saw a guy talking on the phone, and looking at me,” he said. “I felt a little uneasy. I was waiting on the college station wagon to come. I understood they were sending a car to pick up a college nurse.”
Finally, Mose Lawler, a Talladega College maintenance worker, pulled the station wagon into the train station, where he was scheduled to pick up those who were headed to the college. Bacon said he and Lawler waited in the car for others who were supposed to ride back.
Bacon wasn’t going to make that ride back to Talladega.
“I got into the back of the car and someone walked up and asked ‘Where’s the N.’ Someone said, ‘There he is in the back,’ Bacon said.
One of the men struck Lawler in the head, Bacon said. He said he thought they were going to kill Lawler.
“I started to get out of the car, and they hit me as soon as I stuck my head out of the car,” Bacon said.
By the time an ambulance arrived, Bacon had been cut on his eye and head. His teeth were dangling and broken. He had black eyes, and blood was everywhere, he said.
“They stitched up my head on the gurney. I was never taken to an operating room,” Bacon said. “I went to the dentist after that to get my teeth looked at because they were hanging from the root.”
Talladega College faculty organized a peace march in Anniston a few days after the incident, Calhoun said. The march took place in front of the Anniston police station.
“People didn’t know too much about the story, but they didn’t know until students marched on his behalf,” Calhoun said.
Bacon said although he sat alone in that train station waiting room, his attack was a catalyst for activism by students, staff and faculty.
“The real courage was demonstrated by the Talladega College faculty staff and students who marched in Anniston amidst a hostile crowd and those who later went to jail in Talladega for refusing to vacate a counter at drugstore,” he said.
Now, Bacon and others’ stories can be told through the trail.
The city of Anniston, the Alabama Department of Tourism, the Alabama Historical Commission Black Heritage Council and Jacksonville State University sponsored the trail. Councilman Seyram Selase said he’s elated the council took the initiative to facilitate in the development of the trail.
“It shows the city is working to preserve the history of the city,” he said via phone Monday. “It’s important we tell the story to the next generation.”
With the establishment of the trail, tourists will have the opportunity to start in Anniston and travel to Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma to learn about the Civil Rights Movement, Lisa Morales, Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce tourism director, said via phone Wednesday. She also said the trail will drive tourism revenue in the city and county.
“Those who view the trail would be staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants and shopping in our stores,” Morales said. “They would be spending money here.”
Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama Tourism Department, said both domestic and international tourists are fascinated by American history, and people might travel even more to see the Anniston trail.
“People go to Virginia to learn about the Civil War because all of the battles took place in Virginia. All of the civil rights battles took place in Alabama,” he said via phone Thursday.
Bacon is now an artist and professor emeritus of the natural sciences and humanities at Talladega College, after a career as a scientist. He said he will be in attendance for the trail unveiling.
Activists who gave their lives for the movement should be paid gratitude, and the trail will do just that, Calhoun said.
“The trail is to help us appreciate and understand our history,” she said.